Christine's Trip to Uganda

It is said that every journey begins with a single step, mine was no different. As I set foot on African soil for the first time on January 7th 2010 I was overwhelmed by the mere thought of after 16 hours in the air reaching our group’s final destination, Uganda. All 12 of us from the University of St. Thomas ranging in age from freshmen to seniors were exhausted from a whole day of travel. But we were also anxiously anticipating the journey of a lifetime we were about to embark on for the next three weeks.

I was chosen to participate in this wonderful experience through a volunteer group on campus called VISION. Volunteers In Service Internationally Or Nationally is made up of St. Thomas students and staff committed to showing the dignity of each human person through service and cultural exchange. Every January term and spring break students embark on adventures in service to places all over the world with the motto “let them know us by our love.” VISION trips are grounded on six basic components: service, cultural exchange, spirituality, justice issues, community and simplicity. In our modern day, anyone from the United States can travel aboard and be a tourist. VISION trips seek to take on the challenge of being servants not tourists by allowing one camera for the entire group, a backpack of belongings, no makeup or jewelry and no electronics for the duration of the three week trips. VISION participants strive to blend in and learn about a culture from the most humble point of view.

While in Uganda we stayed in the capital city of Kampala and worked at St. Michael’s Orphanage under the direction of the Diocese of Kampala. Our task was to construct what we were told was a chicken coup so the orphanage’s onsite bakery could eventually be self sustaining. Thus giving the children placed there better educational opportunities and living accommodations. We soon found out that this was no ordinary chicken coup; in short it would become a chicken building of epic proportions aka a chicken mansion. The building which is big enough to be converted into a house for humans if need be in the future, is set to house 1000 chickens, a small store front and a backroom office. The first of three weeks we were there we worked solely on cementing the foundation for the building. We shoveled rock, cement powder, water and dirt into a mixer making the cement we needed for the flooring. Then with the help of two wheel barrels and many small dishes we carried the wet cement by hand up an incline to the building site. We, along with many of the barefooted orphanage children, repeated this tedious process for three days until the foundation was set. Our group’s next task was to unload 60 lbs concrete blocks off the delivery trucks, which would become the walls of the chicken building. We then began the exhausting task of lifting the blocks into formation and filling the cracks with concrete. When we weren’t walking the ten minutes to and from the orphanage for meals or working on the building itself we would take every opportunity to interact with the 74 children the orphanage houses. On water breaks we would sing songs and dance, play soccer, color and make bracelets and exchange life stories. The children ranged in age from 3 years old to 18 years of age. Each child had their own unique life story of how they ended up at St. Michaels. The majority of the children lost their parents to Malaria, aids and or fatal encounters with rebel forces during the country’s ongoing civil wars.

Through our interactions with the children and our many guest speakers we gained knowledge about the six kingdoms that make up Uganda, the corruption that weaves through all levels of government and everyday life, as well as the cultural differences that set African life apart from the rest of the world. Despite living amongst many hardships Ugandans are proud, determined and happy people of faith. Their smiles, laughter and joy for life’s many blessings were both encouraging and humbling. Their genuine tenderness and warmest for our group as well as faith in God’s plan for their lives was utterly inspiring. One of my favorite memories was at mass the first week where I was welcomed into the cat clan with the new name of Nabaggala. After each member of our group was given a name within one of the 52 clans, the priest said “you are no longer visitors, you are one of us.” It is that sense of community and hospitality that embodies the essence of the Ugandan people so well.

People say there’s something about Africa that connects with your whole being and leaves you different after setting foot on that red soil. It touches your eyes and challenges you to see yourself and the world in a brighter, clearer way. It touches your lips and makes you want to laugh richer and smile longer. It touches your hands and arms making you yearn for warm exchanges of friendship, family and community. It touches your spirit and dares you to be bold, determined and strong. But mostly it touches your heart and makes you want to give love limitlessly and receive love indefinitely.
After setting foot back on the University of St. Thomas’ campus in St. Paul, Minnesota, I see the beauty of how blessed my life really is in the United States. I'm not just talking about the tangible objects like running water, refrigeration and heat within our homes. But the warmth that comes from knowing you are important and loved for being you; that you are not a face or a number among many. If we did nothing else while in Uganda we gave those children at the orphanage an identity all their own. We showed them a tenderness that has been unmatched in their lives thus far. In return those little bundles of joy gave us unconditional love and a new outlook on life.

While in Uganda we also traveled to the equator and source of the river Nile, climbed through an African jungle and went on an African Safari. Having the privilege to experience this beautiful nation known as “the Pearl of Africa” would not have been possible without the generous financial support and words of encouragement from Thomson-Shore. Thank you doesn't begin to describe how grateful I am that Thomson-Shore was behind me for my service project in Africa. Your commitment to philanthropy in the surrounding area, as well as the global community is a living testament to your company’s down to earth values. I am so blessed to have been chosen not only to experience life in Uganda and serve St. Michael’s orphanage but also that Thomson-Shore genuinely wanted to be a part of a great cause. This truly solidifies the partnership between TitleTown Publishing and Thomson-Shore forever. By generously donating to my trip, it was not just me serving over in Africa but a piece of Thomson-Shore was there as well. The impact of three short weeks will live on in the structure that was built, the wonderful friendships that were formed and countless ripples of kindness that grow from service. Thank you Thomson-Shore for being a part of something life changing. Your simple act of kindness impacted not only a humble college student in the twin cities but also a multitude of orphaned Ugandan children. It is said that the truest form of service is giving wholeheartedly to those that have no way of reciprocating the favor. I commend Thomson-Shore for doing just that. Your generous donation and inspiring words of hope and compassion to a group of children that otherwise feel forgotten will live on for years to come. Thank you Thomson-Shore.

Christine “Nabaggala” Ertl